Although often considered a realistic novel, Gustave Flaubert sprinkles Madame Bovary with symbolism essential to his message. While doing so he also depicts the desperate situation of many 19th century women and the various reasons for their predicament. The main character, Madame Emma Bovary, is a hopeless romantic continually in search of a love she will never find. Symbolic references such as an open or closed window indicate the future of Madame Bovary and the other main characters.
A symbol found in many places in Madame Bovary is the presence of an open window. This symbol signifies that a major change is approaching. An early occurrence of this happens just before Charles Bovary unexpectedly loses all interest in college and eventually fails his final doctor's exam. Later, a maid talks with a messenger through an open window to discover Charles must go to the Les Bertaux farm to treat the owner.
This is where the doctor meets his future wife. Since Charles is too shy to propose in person, Emma's father offers to ask for him and then signal if she agrees. Upon seeing him open the window, Charles knows his life will change forever.
Another prevalent symbol in the novel is the mentioning of a closed window. This mark predicts impending danger. One of the first occurrences of a closed window is when Charles and Emma are alone at Les Bertaux before the proposal. Here Flaubert foreshadows future friction between the two. After marriage, Emma waves goodbye to Charles as he departs for work every morning through the closed window. Their marriage soon turns sour and Emma seeks other sources of love.
Symbolism also appears in the form of windowpanes. These panes represent a separation between Emma and a different way of life. Windowpanes are mentioned often during the ball at the chateau. First, Emma mingles with guests while peasants admire her, pressing their faces against the panes to get closer. Then, as the heat generated from all the people overcomes Emma, the servants begin breaking windows to let in fresh air. Emma feels as though the barrier between her life and the life of the upper class has been shattered. Later, Emma is bored with her life and Flaubert specifically mentions that "the windowpanes were covered with frost each morning (80).
Symbolism is used throughout Madame Bovary to subtly enhance the meaning of the written words. Seemingly meaningless objects such as open windows, closed windows, and windowpanes have definite meaning. All these are skillfully used to foreshadow coming events like opportunity, danger, and separation. Flaubert makes use of symbols despite his reputation as a realistic writer.